Sunday, December 4, 2011

Isaiah Can Leave You Breathless (Advent 2B)

Would you like to know how much time it takes to write a short homily? About twice as long as it takes to write a long one.

I have to speak briefly this morning since I am on my way to Toronto for the annual meeting of Renewal Ministries. I chair the Canadian board of this Catholic charity, which is devoted to missionary work and evangelization. Many of you are familiar with Ralph Martin and Peter Herbeck, two of the leaders of Renewal Ministries.

From Toronto I'm off to Rome, so next Sunday I will be praying with you from afar.

On my day off last I was visiting some friends, and spied a framed quotation on their wall. It said "Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away."

For some reason, I thought about those words when I read today's first reading from the prophet Isaiah.

Isaiah proclaims the joy of redemption with various voices, but they all ring with victory. The prophet speaks tenderly, comfortingly. Then he shouts. And then the passage ends with the image of the Good Shepherd. His prophecy should take our breath away.

If these words don't leave you a bit breathless—if they don't lift your spirits—then maybe you should read the advertisement in today's bulletin for tickets to Handel's Messiah! Handel used many lines from today's reading in his exquisite work.

Even more important, we should find some time this week to go over the reading—it's always easy to find the Sunday readings on-line if you don't have a missal at home—and ask: is this my experience? Am I comforted by the knowledge of salvation? Does God speak tenderly to my heart?

Because Isaiah's words are a prophecy already fulfilled by the coming of Christ and by His saving work. It's true, He will come again, but His first coming has already leveled the hills of despair and darkness; His first coming revealed the glory of the Lord and banished fear from the hearts of men.

The prophecy is fulfilled in us when we open our hearts to the tenderness and mercy of God. Only in prayer can the Lord comfort us, feeds us, gather us, carry us and lead us.

My friend Vernon Robertson says that prayer begins as a duty, demands discipline, but will eventually lead to delight. So there are three steps to take in prayer: first, taking the duty seriously. If we fail to pray at all, we're really missing the boat. The second is to stick with prayer in a disciplined way, praying even when we don't feel like it. The third is allowing prayer to delight us.

Sometimes God will surprise us with consolation and delight. But most of the time we need to make the uneven ground level by persevering in prayer over a period of time. We need to take texts like this one from Isaiah into a time of prayer so that the full Advent message of hope and comfort penetrates our hearts.

With even a minimum of duty and discipline, prayer in Advent can take your breath away, and prepare you for a fresh experience of God's glory at Christmas.

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